Saturday, December 05, 2009

On Torture, Arabic, and the Chosenness of Buffalo--Day Two

This is a long post, so grab your coffee and get comfortable!
I began my day with a splendid run around the Royal Botanical Gardens--gorgeous--and when I got back to the hotel and turned on the radio "Down Under," by Men at Work was playing! Perfect!
The first session I went to this morning was titled, "Reviving Indigenous Spirituality: Reclaiming Strength and Identity." There were two presenters, both of whom spoke about the beliefs of their religious traditions, and the guiding principles that shape their lives.
The first presenter was Tsugio Kuzuno, an Ainu elder from Hokkaido, Japan. He emphasized their belief that God exists everywhere in the universe, and lives within everything. "Ainu" means "human," that is, one who can communicate with God, nature, and other humans "calmly and gently." There is an interesting dynamism in Ainu belief, in that Kuzuno talked about 'God' and 'gods' somewhat interchangeably--for example, he said that Ainu pray and make offerings of rice wine to the god of fire before the other gods, not because he is considered higher or greater, but because they believe that their prayers to the other gods will reach them more quickly through the god of fire. [This echoes Vedic belief, in which Agni, the god of fire, also mediated the offerings people would make to the different deities in the Hinduism of the Rig Veda.]
After a person dies, her body is buried, and through the work of microbes, it is recycled into the earth; her spirit, however, lives on, and returns to watch over its descendents. [We saw an example of what that means for the Ainu when, at the end of his presentation, Kuzuno brought out and showed us his father's and mother's kimonos. This was a way for him to honor them, and a way of acknowledging their presence with us, too.]
One of the most interesting ramifications of the Ainu belief in the deep, pervasive inter-conntectedness of all existence is their attitude toward human-made objects. The Ainu do not reject such objects as artificial--they are a part of the universe, too; however, they believe that we have a ethical relationship to what we create that endures as long as it does. This means two things: first, there should be integrity in what people produce; and second, you are responsible for whatever you make for as long as it exists, not just until it is thrown away or buried in the ground. This is, of course, a logical consequence of the belief that God dwells in all things. One example of this is the prayer that is typically said before building a house: "Please allow us to use part of Your body to build our house."
The second presenter was Francois Paulette, a Dene from Canada's Northwest Territories, who is a former chief of this particular group of First Nations. The framing idea of his presentation was the concept of "Diné Chanié ," which literally means "the path we walk," but signifies something like what we mean when we say "the natural order." It is an all-encompassing term that includes every aspect of life; and the Dene are similar to the Ainu in that they live out of a reality in which the whole cosmos is profoundly interrelated. The connection between the people and the land is of particular importance: I thought it was interesting that Paulette teaches occasionally at the local college, but only on the condition that he take the students to the land and not come to the campus to teach. This is because "the land is the teacher"--it is impossible to learn anything about Native culture and religion apart from the land.

One idea that both presenters mentioned was the belief regarding the spiritual nearness of infants and children to God. Paulette elaborated on this idea, saying that the Dene believe that the 'soft spot' babies are born with on their heads is a door to God--once that door shuts, we have a harder time communicating with God. One way in which the Dene facilitate prayer and communication with God is through fasting. Paulette himself practices an austere fast once a year--four days and four nights with no food or water--in order to "remind myself who I am" and be called back into relationship with God.

It is clear that for the Dene, not only relationship to land but also relationship to animals--the buffalo in particular--is extremely important. At one point, he said that the buffalo are the most sacred of four-legged animals, and when a person in the audience asked why, he said, "That is the job the buffalo have been given." In my view, this is a fascinating application of the concept of 'chosenness' to an animal--isn't it provocative to think of God 'choosing' animals for a certain type of existence, as well as humans? As you can imagine, I love this idea!!

Now, watch carefully as I transition seamlessly between two very different presentations. Paulette emphasized that the concept of Diné Chanié governs all aspects of one's life, and that those different aspects are fundamentally in relationship--family life, life among the people, and one's public life in the world. Not only does Paulette live this out by teaching for the college, but he also told us that after the Parliament, he is flying to Copenhagen for the Climate Change conference. One lives out one's spirituality in the world; and one's faith is intimately related to all the other commitments one has--personal, ethical, and political. This leads me to the second presentation I went to, by George Hunsinger, who is professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton, a Presbyterian minister, and the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He was powerfully affected by the terrible facts and details he recounted in his presentation--so much so that he had to stop and compose himself several times. What was patently clear is that the reason for his emotional reaction was not because he is an academic, not because he is a political activist, but because he is a Christian, a person of faith; and for Hunsinger, torture is a religious issue, an issue of faith that should concern all Christians.

[I want to say as an aside that this really resonates with the book I just finished last night, Enfleshing Freedom, by M. Shawn Copeland. That book is all about the importance of bodies in Christian thought; and she emphasizes how the body is the medium through which an individual realizes his or her essential selfhood in relationship to God and to other "embodied selves." Thus, when bodies are abused--she talks specifically about black bodies--victimized and tortured, those individuals are de-humanized, and their existence as imago Dei is fundamentally compromised.]

The title of Hunsinger's presentation was "Violence Finds Refuge in Falsehood," and he used the ideas of both Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Orwell to talk about the awful connection between violence--specifically torture--and deception. Solzhenistsyn is the famous survivor of the terrible Soviet forced-labor camps, which he described and exposed in his writing, particular in The Gulag Archipelago, and a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. From his own experience, he argued that "violence is necessarily interwoven with falsehood;" and "anyone who chooses violence as his method necessarily chooses falsehood as his principle." This resonates with George Orwell's descriptions of "linguistic falsehoods," whereby things are mis-named in order to avoid calling up mental images of them. So, for example, in our time, torture goes by the name of "enhanced interrogation techniques;" and we use the term "taking the offensive against terrorist brutality" to define the practice of rounding up anyone who is deemed 'suspicious,' detaining them in secret prisons, deporting them, threatening their families, etc. This linguistic slight-of-hand is necessary for such horrible violence to occur unchallenged; and, unfortunately, such activities are being condoned and practiced by our own government. Hunsinger was blunt about how he has been disappointed by President Obama, and how he worries that the promised changes in this area that the new administration heralded will not come to pass after all.

Let me be blunt as well. Frankly, the terrible torture practices that he describes so vividly [and if you want to read the particulars of his argument, check out either his Dialog article in the Fall 2008 issue, or his new book, Torture is a Moral Issue] make me question the fundamental demand of obedience made by the US military. This demand seems designed to trump all other loyalties--including loyalty to peace and justice, loyalty to the neighbor, and even loyalty to Christ--as it provides a blanket justification for the most atrocious behavior. Imagine, if you will, that upon arrival at the seminary, the faculty were to demand an oath of obedience of all the students: "You are to believe unquestioningly everything your teachers tell you." Can imagine such a thing? What would it serve, in the end?

The fact is, torture practices are not only morally unjustifiable, they are ineffective [they "pollute the interrogation stream"], they evidence a dark psychological side of human nature that is demonic, and torture "always comes home"--that is, it damages the torturers just as much as it damages the tortured: both are irreparably mentally and emotionally effected. Hunsinger concluded his presentation with some words from Albert Camus, from the interview he did at a Dominican monastery in 1948. He said, "What the world expects from Christians is that they should speak out loud and clear….to confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today." This is Hunsinger's message as well. We may not succeed, but we should do it anyway, and we shouldn't despair.

As you might imagine, after that, I needed something entirely different. So, I went to two very fun presentations in the afternoon. The first was a Hindu dance presentation--the "Bharat Natyam," which is an ancient dance form from South India that is performed for the divine. Two Moscow ballerinas performed it for us, and it was magical--gorgeous and exuberant.
I ended Day Two with John Myers' presentation on "Learn Arabic Letters in 90 Minutes." It was fun and funny, and was grounded in the idea that "humans fear that which they do not understand." Thus, learning another's language--even on the most basic level--is an act of interreligious understanding that promotes respect for another's culture, reduces hostility, and fosters dialogue. Obviously, I didn't learn it all in 90 minutes, but I have to say that his system [which he teaches in a series of three workbooks, taking three weeks to go through] is pretty compelling.
Now I'm beating the sun to bed!
Evening blessings.

Kristin Johnston Largen

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